LDS “Folk Beliefs” about Racism

I was listening to Radio from Hell on the way to work, and they were discussing a story in the Salt Lake Tribune, wherein the LDS church repudiated several statements from BYU religion professor Randy Bott about the reasons behind the priesthood ban.

For those who aren’t aware, before 1978, men of sub-Saharan African descent were not allowed to hold the LDS priesthood. In LDS belief, the priesthood is the authority to act in the name of God and perform saving ordinances, such as baptism and temple ceremonies. Black men and women alike were denied entry to LDS temples, even for baptisms for the dead.

In the discussion on Radio from Hell to the Randy Bott/LDS racism story, the producer, Richie, who is a believing Mormon, suggested that the Washington Post had lied to Bott about having received permission from the LDS church and BYU to talk to him; Richie went on to say that Bott’s comments may have been fabricated or distorted. Bill Allred and Kerry Jackson, both former Mormons, explained that Richie is too young to remember when these teachings were common and official. Allred was exactly right about what the church has taught in the past officially; the church is being less than truthful in saying that the teachings Bott described are “folk beliefs” and don’t reflect church doctrine. I’m giving Richie a pass, for the most part, because he wasn’t born when these teachings were common, as Bill, Kerry, and I were.

Let’s take a look at these “folk beliefs.”

  • “Bott pointed to Mormon scriptures that indicate descendants of the biblical Cain — who killed his brother Abel and was “cursed” by God — were black and subsequently barred from the priesthood.” Bill correctly pointed out that LDS scriptures contain that teaching: “ And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them” (Moses 5:22). Also:

“23 The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden;

“24 When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.

25 Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal.

26 Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.

27 Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry;” (Abraham 1:23-27).

Mormon prophets and official publications consistently taught that, as indicated in these scriptures, people of African descent were descendants of Cain who were cursed with black skin and prohibited from the priesthood:

“From this it is very clear that the mark which was set upon the descendants of Cain was a skin of blackness, and there can be no doubt that this was the mark that Cain himself received; in fact, it has been noticed in our day that men who have lost the spirit of the Lord, and from whom His blessings have been withdrawn, have turned dark to such an extent as to excite the comments of all who have known them.” (Juvenile Instructor, vol. 26, page 635).

“Not only was Cain called upon to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, p. 101).

  • ” He also noted that past LDS leaders suggested blacks were less valiant in the sphere known in Mormon theology as the ‘premortal existence.’” An official statement from the First Presidency in 1949 says exactly that:

“The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.” (A Statement from the First Presidency, August 17, 1949, emphasis mine).

  • “The longtime religion professor at LDS Church-owned BYU further argued that blacks were not ready for the priesthood, the Post wrote, “like a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car.” This one isn’t taught in the scriptures, but it certainly goes along with the notion that black people are “inferior” and incapable of exercising priesthood authority. There are many examples of this teaching: “The Negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow there from, but this inequality is not of man’s origin, it is the Lord’s doings.” (Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 526-527).

So, these folk beliefs are not really folk beliefs. Maybe the church should have been nominated for Boner of the Day for being so disingenuous.

The problem here isn’t that the current church has racist teachings but that they’ve never acknowledged that the past policies and doctrines were racist or wrong. What they’ve essentially done is to pretend that nothing before 1978 matters, as current teachings are clear. But what this does is force some Mormons, such as Randy Bott and others, to continue to justify past racism, and we see the results in the Washington Post interview. Richie may feel that the Post was dishonest with Bott, but even if Bott didn’t say what he was quoted as saying, these beliefs were common and officially taught in our generation, and they are still being perpetuated today by people who want to make sense of the ban.


16 Responses to LDS “Folk Beliefs” about Racism

  1. Diane Sower says:

    You hit the nail on the head when you discussed pre-mortal estates. I was taught through out childhood and part of my adult hood that blacks had done something wrong in the pre-existence than meant they would be born with black skin, and not be worthy of the blessings of the priesthood. That Joseph Smith taught, along with Brigham, that as blacks and lamanites furthered their worthiness, their skins would be “lightened.” There’s no getting around it. Pg. 527 Of McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine.

  2. jeanikins says:

    “Men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression” or Cain’s by extension of that doctrine.
    This is what Latter Day Saints were taught. Does the Church expect these teachings to just go away? I taught my kids what I was taught – all the McConkie doctrine that he reversed AFTER the ban on black people was lifted.
    LDS do not know how many doctrines have changed over the years since Joseph Smith started the Church, but surely members are honest enough to remember the teachings of the priesthood ban correctly. I remember reluctantly accepting that it was GOD who would not allow black people to receive the same blessings to which white people had access. I remember being taught that it was because they were not valiant in their first estate and that in some way, something that I did ‘better’ in MY first estate, enabled me to be born into the tribe of Ephraim (patriarchal blessing) to receive all the blessings of the gospel.
    I was totally unfamiliar with the racist speeches of earlier LDS Church leaders because I trusted them. I KNEW just as I KNEW that the Church was true, that by that same token, the Church would never lie to me – well they did.
    I’m out and I hope that others will have the courage to face the derision that comes from family and former friends to expose the truth about the conspiracy to deceive that is mouldering in the LDS closet.
    They cannot tell the truth now; cannot own up to all the lies or they would lose too many members. With barely one third of the membership being active today, it is my hope that those few will wake up and smell the coffee:)

  3. Mark says:

    Just because it was taught by church leaders does not mean it wasn’t folklore. Folklore, as used here, means ideas that have crept into church teachings that have speculation as their source rather than revelation. Church leaders, like regular members, can still teach things that are not based on revealed doctrine. You have provided examples for this above.

    • runtu says:

      Mark, just to get this straight, you believe that what the First Presidency declared as doctrine in 1949 was mere folklore and speculation? Similarly, the curse of Cain issue is in the scriptures. Are you suggesting that the scriptures are also folklore?

    • I’ve heard variations of this argument before. Which of the “church teachings,” as you term them, are doctrinal and which are not? As Mormon defenders-of-the-faith narrow the criteria for what counts as doctrine, perhaps they would keep in mind that they are simultaneously narrowing the criteria for what counts as authoritative today. In many cases, in their eagerness to disavow what was formerly considered doctrine, they are drawing modern general authorities into boxes that would make them feel claustrophobic (if they were concerned about consistency).

  4. aerin says:

    Have they de-canonized the Book of Abraham as not scripture? Are Triple combinations not the norm? Whatever the current prophets say, I thought the scriptures were unchanging.

  5. I can’t help feeling that the Romney candidacy is going to focus more negative than positive attention on the Church. TBM should be voting for Santorum.

  6. cindy kalogeras says:

    Cain was given the curse (he was no longer worthy of the priesthood) when he murdered his brother Abel…the mark (dark skin) was also given to him so that others would know…marrying into the family of Cain would prevent them from being sealed together for all time and eternity.

    • runtu says:

      The problem is that the notion that sub-Saharan Africans are all descendants of Cain, through Ham, is silly. That position didn’t become widely held until late Protestant times in an effort to justify African slavery. That the LDS church incorporated such beliefs into their canon does not make them any more valid or true.

    • GBSmith says:

      I guess that could be true if you believe there was a real Cain who murdered his brother and was cursed by God and you believe that person was the progenitor of an entire race of people. If you don’t, as I don’t, then this is all folklore. Just people making myths to explain their world.

      • runtu says:

        GBSmith, that is exactly right. This is mythology that has been appropriated to support modern notions of racial superiority, and it’s a little depressing to hear someone in 2012 repeat such nonsense.

  7. […] problem is that, up until last week, that “folk doctrine” was simply “doctrine”, and if it wasn’t, maybe one of those prophets, seers, and […]

  8. […] Bott just reveals something that can’t really be denounced without also denouncing rather institutional, “official” statements. To call it all speculation and folklore is to call statements […]

  9. The Curse of Cain was always called “a doctrine of the Church” from 1848 until June 8th 1978. Even Spencer W. Kimball’s NON-revelation (OC2) did not condemn nor repudiate the doctrine. The 1949 First Presidency “Statement on the Negro Question” left no doubt, if there was any, that the Curse of Cain Doctrine, including the Less-Valiant Doctrine, was “a doctrine of the Church”.

    The doctrine that Negroes were “less valiant” in the War in Heaven is not mentioned in any LDS Revelation. Rather, it comes from a “revelation” of God to Joanna Southcott, a very popular British “prophetess” in the late 18th century. One of her “revelations” says that, but it cannot be found in any Revelation to Joseph Smith. Brigham Young rejected the less valiant doctrine that the Pratt brothers were promoting, UNTIL a Mulatto Mormon Elder named William McCary was caught seducing young Mormon women in Winter’s Quarters Nebraska in 1847. Then, and only then, did Brigham Young start teaching the Curse of Cain Doctrine.

    Certainly, “the seed of Cain were black” can be interpreted to mean that they had black skin, and that is how early Mormons interpreted it. The term can also mean “they were inclined to evil” with no reference to skin color; for those of you who believe in the Book of Moses (I no longer do).

    YES…the Church is now LYING….blaming this “forklore” on “some Members” and trying to distance Church leaders from it. It’s a deceptive word-game! The Church is lying, and intelligent young Mormons will eventually figure that out (thanks to the Internet), and many more legions of Mormons will leave the Church forever because of it. The Church should just FESS UP and say WE WERE WRONG and move on. But, those men at 47 East South Temple just can’t do that! Because they can’t admit they or former leaders were wrong, it will eventually lead to tens of thousands leaving the Church, once they figure out that Church leaders have deliberately lied to them (yet again).

  10. Paul Plumb says:

    Five years before the June 8, 1978 revelation on priesthood Hugh Nibley wrote an article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 8 (1973): 73-77 that I would suggest you all need to read. His article is a commentary on an article written by Lester Bush entitled “Mormonisim’s Negro Doctrine; An Historical Overview.” For his entire article just enter ‘the best possible test hugh nibley’ in your browser’s search and voila – the entire article to enighten all of us.

    In the first paragraph he says, “What Brother Bush has given us in this excellent study is not a history of the Negro policy in the Church, but of the explanations for it. The ‘attitudes’ shift in ‘a complex evolutionary pattern,’ as he puts it, while noting in his concluding sentence that from the first to last there has been no weakening of ‘the belief that the policy is justified.'”

    Brother Nibley goes on to say, “it is an interesting chapter in the history of thought, showing how the leaders of the Church have from time to time come up with various explanations for limitations placed on the activity of the Negro in the Church. To engage in such mental exercises has been not only their prerogative but their duty. When faced with such a problem, the command is, ‘You must study it out in your mind,’ then, when you have gone as far as you can, you must ask God not to confirm your solution but to let you know whether it is right or not: ‘Then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore you shall feel that it is right’

    …”Hence though the mind of the Lord is confirmed by an imponderable feeling, one is required, before asking of the Lord and receiving that feeling, to exercise his own wits to the fullest, so that there must be place for the fullest discussion and explanation in the light of the scriptures or any other relevant information”

    …”In the efforts of every president of the Church to explain our position to the world, as presented in Dr. Bush’s study, we see the admission that this thing is not the invention of those men – they are embarrassed by it, and they all pass the acid test for honesty when they refuse to put their own opinions forth as revelation – which in their case would have been an easy thing to do. They are all sure that the policy is right, but none claims to give definitive rational or scriptural justification for it, though they are not backward in putting forth suggestions and speculations. This puts the Mormons in an embarrassing position, and why not? The Lord has often pushed the Saints into the water to make them swim, and when our own indolence, which is nothing less than disobedience, gets us into a jam, he lets us stew in our own juice until we do something about it. The most impressive lesson of Bush’s paper is how little we know about these things – and how little we have tried to know.”

    Later in his article he asks, “Am I not turning my back on my brother in not sharing the work of the priesthood with him? Not at all! There is a vast amount of work going on in the Church all the time, all directed by the priesthood, but not necessarily carried out by it. To be engaged in any of these jobs is to be engaged in one and the same work; and can the eye say to the hand, I have no need of thee?”

    On another page he says, “Again, our scriptures tell us that all little children are pure and innocent by nature, and as such are saved in the celestial kingdom of God, and declare the contrary teaching or the world to be particularly devilish (Moroni 8:5-22). Now the vast majority of Negroes who have lived on the earth have died as little children; the celestial kingdom will be full of them, while, as we have indicated, there may be very few present-day priesthood holders among them (many are called but few are chosen). Has this been duly noted? It has been maintained that because of the curse of Cain the Negro shoould never be allowed to vote; but our scriptures tell us that that race is peculiarly fitted for government:”

    It appears that, “The hardest thing in the world for men to learn is ‘this one lesson – that the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven’. They are God’s alone to give and take away, and no one will dispute his right to as he pleases with his own. So now the whole issue boils down to asking whether it is really God and not man who has ordered this thing. Members and Nonmembers alike who up until now have laughed at the thought of asking such a question are suddenly exercised by it. And so it gives me great pleasure to be in a position to answer the quetion with an unequivocal affirmative: it is indeed the Lord’s doing. How do I know it? By revelation – which I am in no position to bestow upon others; this goes only for myself.”

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